Homily for Mass on Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
Last December Pope Francis received a rather unusual Christmas gift. A Swiss company, Eurolactis, which sells donkey’s milk in Italy, gave the Holy Father two donkeys, Thea and Noah. The Pope received them with delight and they now live at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. A native of Argentina, the Pope openly waxed nostalgic about being fed donkey’s milk as a child.
Agricultural animals feature in our Christian tradition. In our Christmas scenes we see fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy: “The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s crib” (Is 1:3). Two turtle doves were offered by Jesus’ parents in the Temple (Lk 2:24). In His preaching Jesus talked of “birds of the air”, “fish of the sea” and “the fatted calf”, of swine, camels and sheep, of goats, cattle and dogs, foxes, snakes and sparrows. Jesus replaced the sacrificial lamb of the Passover with Himself, which is why He is introduced in the Gospels and at Communion as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (cf. Ex ch 12; Mk ch 14; Jn 1:29). But did you notice one last animal, at the very end of our Passion Gospel today? “Someone ran and soaked a [sea] sponge in old wine and, putting it on a reed, gave it to Jesus to drink.”
But on Palm Sunday, as the most solemn week in the Church’s calendar begins, it is a humble, comical, ugly donkey that of all the animal kingdom gets his nose – or ears – in the picture (Mk 11:1-10). Kings customarily arrive on glorious steads; ours comes on a donkey. He is already telling us what He will tell Pilate on Friday: my kingdom is not like yours, my values not of this world (Jn 19:36).
But a king He is. One of the prerogatives of ancient kings was to commandeer other people’s property. So when Jesus directs His men to take a stranger’s colt and simply say “The Lord needs it” He is asserting mastery over all things. Yet in The Philippian Hymn in our epistle, Paul sings that this divine king did not cling to His prominence, but rather “emptied himself” to become slave of all (Phil 2:6-11). To requisition a donkey rather than a horse and carriage or slave-powered sedan-chair was as unthinkable as a Master stripping off his outer garment, and washing the feet of his inferiors… Humility incarnate, Obedience itself, Service Himself enters Jerusalem and for a moment we glimpse that this is real greatness. For a moment we know that this is what we should honour with our palms and cloaks.
But where the animal is loyal, the human heart is fickle. “The ox knows its owner and the ass its Master’s crib,” says the Prophet, “but Israel does not know [Me], my people do not understand” (Is 1:3). One moment it’s “Hosanna to King David’s son”, the next it’s “Crucify him”. A triumphal entrance is followed by a shameful exit. St Mark’s account of the Passion, which we heard chanted today, is the most unadorned account. He talks straight: “They struck his head with a reed and spat on him… They led him out to crucify him… Even those who were crucified with him taunted him… Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” (Mk 15:1-39)
Our sanctuary is a mass of bruise-coloured purple, for as we heard they mocked Jesus by dressing him in Royal purple, crowning him with thorns and saluting him as “King of the Jews!” The humiliation of this king is complete. Yet in the manner of His enduring, in His humility and self-giving, in His forgiving and winning forgiveness for us, one onlooker saw who He was. The man was no Christian, no Jew, but a pagan, a centurion. “In truth,” he said, “this was a son of God.”
One man knew who this “king of the Jews” truly was: one man – and one animal. In a world in which brutal forces like I.S. and Al Qaeda are merrily crucifying Christ again, in His followers and in other religious minorities, and are blasphemously using the name of God to justify their cruelty and genocide, we need to witness again the virtues of the King of Holy Week: patience, humility, love and peace. Jesus is, of course, Himself our mule, our unseemly beast of burden, our scapegoat, as He bears the burden of our sins on His cross. And yet we know that beyond worldly beauty, power and acclaim there are things more beautiful and powerful and worthy of all honour.
In his poem The Donkey G.K. Chesterton suggested that we might learn from that much-despised animal who once was honoured to carry an infinitely precious cargo:
When fishes flew and forests walked
and figs grew upon thorn,
some moment when the moon was blood
then surely I was born;
with monstrous head and sickening cry
and ears like errant wings,
the Devil’s walking parody
on all four-footed things;
the tattered outlaw of the earth,
of ancient crooked will;
starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
one far fierce hour and sweet:
there was a shout about my ears,
and palms before my feet.